Italy – A Primer

In Trento, English poet Matthew Gregory interviews Alan Maglio about Italian footballing philosophy, the variety of contemporary Serie A and Cesare Prandelli’s approach to Euro 2012:


MG: Something very interesting in the Italy-Spain match was the use of Daniele De Rossi as a ‘creative sweeper’. I can’t immediately recall a player in my lifetime taking up that role. It was a very crafty modification from Prandelli, as I think Spain were expecting Italy to play deep and try to counter attack, but be limited by their passing options at the back. With De Rossi, they had a real passer in a very unusual position! It allowed the Italians to release their second playmaker, Pirlo, and the forwards, as soon as they won the ball. Perhaps Matthias Sammer used to play a similar role for Germany? Do you think they’ll continue with this system during the England game? Or will that require a whole new set-up?

AM: I think that De Rossi played with great determination against Spain in that position unusual for him; in my opinion Prandelli will use him again in front of the defence. We must consider that Chiellini had an injury in the final minutes of the game against Ireland, so it will be very important to keep quality players also at the back. The example of Sammer is right, normally quality midfielders can be switched back in a more defensive role at the end of their careers, when athletic energies and the ability to run for long part of the matches starts to fade (another similar example in German teams could also be Lothar Mathaus in the national team and his last years at Bayern Munchen, when he led his team to a Uefa Cup).

I think Italy-England will be a very balanced game, unpredictable in the final result. For sure the Italian team is not the best ever, many players are inexperienced to play at this level… Bonucci, Giaccherini, Nocerino, Abate…. I had good impressions of Marchisio and Balzaretti. The Englandteam looks fresh and young, Carroll and Welbeck were impressive against Sweden, now that Rooney is back in the game Hodgson (who knows Italian football well) can mix young talents and experienced players.

MG: Pirlo has been for the Italians what the Spanish call Xavi, the ‘titiritero’, the puppeteer, or puppet master. His assist for Di Natale against Spain was indicative of what he is. England very rarely possess a player like that, or if they do, they tend to leave them back at home. The one thing that Pirlo seems to embody is harmony: as if the world can wait while he gets things right. And he sets the example for the rest of the team. That’s something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit in general while I’ve been in Italy. A friend of mine, from Lithuania, made an interesting observation. He noticed that Sorrento tomatoes would lose their flavour if not cut precisely – easily done, in fact, almost impossible not to do, if you know little about the Sorrento tomato. The juice floods out of a few vessels in the fruit. He proposed that if an atomic scientist were to analyse the way that any good home-cook of the area sliced the Sorrento tomato, he would find a molecular harmony in the incision. I can’t exactly confirm that, but, you know. I thought it was wonderfully illustrative of something about Italy. In comparison, there is a noticeable kind of ‘discord’, when I think of English teams in my lifetime, a volatile energy that can either be successful, catching the opposition unawares with the vigour and speed of the assault, or it leads to things like that Germany game in the last World Cup! Under Roy Hodgson, at least there seems to be a noticeable calm over the team. But not on the pitch, still, I don’t think, and perhaps there never will be the same kind of composure I see in Italy or Spain, or the Germans at their most magisterial. But I wonder why?

AM: Pirlo is a unique player, one of the key men in the 2006 World Cup and many Champions League editions for AC Milan. Last year the Rossoneri didn’t want to renew his contract – after disappointing for Italy at 2010 WC, many thought that his talent was fading. So he went to Juventus for no money, with a new contract signed with the Bianconeri. Juve desperately needed to refound the team after Serie B and anonymous seasons in Serie A. They couldn’t choose anyone better: Pirlo played a magnificent season, reasoning for a team full of fast men on the wings and athletic players on midfield. In the national team Pirlo shows his talent at his best, even if is not so fast as WC 2006, he still can play the ball under his great vision suggesting the movements to all the team. Spain’s ideal is to play with a goalkeeper and 10 players like Pirlo, bypassing the idea of defenders, midfielders or forwards. Iniesta and Xavi are the best expression of this updated version of football that looks back to Dutch football of the 70s, when everybody must do everything. In English tradition the spirit is different, football is very fast and athletic, it’s difficult for Pirlos or Xavis to come out and play in the national team, maybe a good expression of that kind of player was Gascoigne, but sadly his career was too short and underrated for the talent he had.

MG: Something I’ve become more and more aware of is the diversity of tactical approaches in Serie A. A universal ‘Italian’ style doesn’t seem to be applicable to the league. Juventus, this year, for instance, played very differently to the two Milan clubs, who, in turn, played very differently to SSC Napoli. In fact, when I think of those four teams, there is very little to unite them as being recognisably Italian. Juventus and Inter seem to contain some of the older traits, but with more contemporary variation. I couldn’t spot an overwhelmingly universal system, like catenaccio or the patient possession play, that outsiders immediately think of when they consider Italian football. Napoli’s three-pronged counter-attack, with the two South Americans and Hamsik, was explosive, while Juventus in their midfield play were very expansive and enterprising. Who do you think Prandelli has learnt the most from, in terms of league football?

AM: Prandelli is involving in the national team a lot of Juventus players, basically the whole defence of the Bianconeri. Antonio Conte won the last Serie A also with a very solid defence in the team. So Buffon, Barzagli, Chiellini and Bonucci for Italy is in fact the Juventus back rank, Pirlo, Giaccherini and Marchisio the middle line. Good players form other teams are Maggio from Napoli, a very fast winger, Di Natale from Udinese (underrated player at international level, but probably the best and most talented Italian forward we have in Serie A), Thiago Motta from PSG (ex-Inter) who seems a bit tired and probably will not play versus England. Keep in mind Nocerino from AC Milan, if he will have a chance to play, he can be a very good surprise, last year Milan bought him from Palermo for €500.000 and he became since day one a decisive player in the midfield, scoring 10(!) goals in the last Serie A. Prandelli should give him a chance in my opinion!

MG: Yes, I like Di Natale. A real predator of the old school. And though he plays for Udinese, he’s from Napoli, isn’t he? It’s interesting, that the defence and the midfield is largely from Juventus, a northern team, notable for their organisation and composure, and the attack, Cassano, Di Natale and Balotelli, are by origin, of the south. I’ve never been to Bari or Palermo, but I’ve lived in Napoli for a little while, and I wouldn’t say organisation or composure were traits of that city! A far cry from Torino. There is a real culture of street football in Napoli, where all public space essentially takes on new chaotic dimensions of football space in an instant, like in Brazil or Argentina. I don’t suppose it’s quite the same in the more orderly cities of the north. It seems illustrative of life in this country that Italy’s most adventurous, reckless forward players, Cassano and Balotelli are southerners, from the streets of Bari and Palermo, while the linchpins are from the unruffled north. A very interesting dynamic, and not one that’s always true, but in this case, it seems to be.

Posted by Matthew Gregory with Alan Maglio

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